"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Healthy paganism

Diogenes over at CWN: Off the Record presents an interesting observation from Msgr. Ronald Knox, the Catholic author who had received my first father-in-law into the Catholic Church:

There is, I think, a healthy kind of paganism lying very near to the roots of this odd compost, human nature, which we shall certainly never get rid of, however much the rationalists try to argue with us, however much the moralists denounce us; a kind of paganism which insists that mute and material things have the power to carry spiritual influences. If I should be invited to go and stay at a country house in which a baronet shot himself, to sleep in the same room in which he shot himself, on the very anniversary of the day on which he shot himself, wearing the same pyjamas which the baronet was wearing when he shot himself, it is an odd circumstance, but I shall not find it easy to get to sleep. The rationalist assures me that the room to-night is the same rooms as it was last night, that it is no different, considered in itself, from any other room in the house; and that the pyjamas are still in good condition. That is all quite true. And the moralist assures me that it is very wrong of me not to go to sleep; it argues that I have a superstitious nature, and that it is a very degraded thing to have a superstitious nature. But all their well meant efforts are unavailing, once they have put the light out. At any other time the confidences of the rationalist and the moralist would have the power to send me to sleep immediately. But they cannot send me to sleep in the baronet's bed, on the anniversary of the baronet's death, in the baronet's pyjamas. [R.A. Knox, "The Charge of Religious Intolerance," in The Fame of Blessed Thomas More, London, 1929]
I believe the sort of fear in question to have an adequate, objective basis in human experience. It is the flip side of venerating such things as healing relics and incorrupt bodies of saints long dead. It's just that the objective basis for such things is not verifiable by modern scientific methods. To suppose that the lack of the latter entails the lack of the former is mere ideology.

That a certain kind of Christian, as well as scientists, would dismiss the above as mere superstition betrays the intimate connection between modern religiosity, even of a certain fundamentalist variety, and modern science. Neither quarter "gets" something that most people in the past, and many in the present, do get. What the scoffers dismiss broad-brush as "superstition" is only the recognition of the fact that material things can focus spiritual realities by signifying them. That is the sacramental principle which must be true in some sense if God created the world and became incarnate in it. What's rightly dismissed as "superstition" is magical thinking: the idea that we can somehow control God with objects and formulas, or that such things have power that God does not choose to give them. But we had better not lose sight of the truth that superstition distorts.
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